HC Deb 15 July 1949 vol 467 cc843-55

The provisions of this Act shall apply to land notwithstanding that the interest of the landlord or tenant thereof is held on behalf of His Majesty for the purposes of any Government department; but in the application thereof to any land an interest in which is held as aforesaid the said provisions shall have effect subject to such modifications as may in the public interest be prescribed by regulations.—[Sir T. Dugdale.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir T. Dugdale

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

We on this side of the House believe this to be the most important proposal which we have put down for this stage, because unless the Government can see their way to accept this new Clause, or themselves to move a new Clause which will have the same result, we believe that the Bill will be completely useless.

A similar Clause—not in quite the same terms—was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) during the Committee stage. The principal objections of the Parliamentary Secretary when replying on that Clause were, firstly, that it was inappropriate for one Government Department to be subject to the regulations of another Government Department, and, secondly, with regard to lands occupied by the Armed Forces, the question of secrecy might arise. This Clause covers the second objection and provides that in relation to land held for the purposes of a Government Department the provisions of the Bill shall be subject to such modifications as may be in the public interest. As to one Government Department being subject to the regula- tions of another, we feel that the Government must just get over that objection in this Measure if it is to be a success administratively.

It will be remembered that we had a very large measure of support in the discussion on this subject upstairs. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Stubbs) is not present, because he gave us some extremely good examples of the type of problem which this Clause is intended to prevent. He gave us an example of an area of about 2,000 or 3,000 acres in his constituency which was occupied by the military, and when they left, the place became infested with vermin and nothing was done to put the matter right. We also had support from the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye) who is very knowledgeable on these subjects and has had practical experience of the destruction of rats and mice in the part of the world from which he comes. We had an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Tolley), who also supported our arguments. I am referring to these hon. Members because from such sources support for this might be imagined to be unlikely. There was complete agreement among hon. Members on this side of the House during the discussions, and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) thought that the problem had serious aspects.

Rats have no regard for boundaries, and lack of interest on the part of a section of the community may bring to naught the steps taken by their more active neighbours. If great areas of country are left outside the provisions of the Bill, it becomes impossible for local authorities to operate it effectively. Not being respecters of boundaries, the rats would wander from the areas being cleaned to the dirty areas and there breed and increase their numbers, to the detriment of our food supplies as well as preventing the objects of the Bill being accomplished.

The House will agree that, on the whole, Government Departments have been proved to be the worst offenders in this respect, particularly in the case of military camps, battle training areas and airfields which are not at present in use. We are not complaining against the Services in this respect—we admit the difficulty—but if we leave these great "islands" isolated from the provisions of the Bill, how are we to make the progress we all desire in reducing the rat and mouse population?

Another big Government Department which has responsibility in this connection is the Forestry Commission. In Committee the Parliamentary Secretary gave an undertaking that he would make an inquiry into the arrangements with the Forestry Commission before the Report stage, and I hope that he will be able to inform the House of the result of those inquiries and say what they propose to do about it. I also hope he will tell us by what method the Government propose to deal with this problem if they are not prepared to accept the Clause. I trust, however, that the Government will accept the Clause, and then we shall know exactly where we are. We shall know that no area of land or building can defy the law through a claim that is outside the law. If, for any reason, the Government cannot accept the Clause, I hope they will give a very detailed account of the methods they propose to make the Bill effective if at the same time they leave out the centres of infection by rats and mice which at present exist.

Mr. Gerald Williams

I beg to second the Motion.

I hope that the Minister will look more favourably on this Clause than he did on the last one. We debated the subject very fully in Committee. Looking through my HANSARD again, I find that the arguments were almost overwhelmingly in favour of including Government Departments. There was much support from hon. Gentlemen opposite at that time, and the only real objection during the proceedings was on account of secrecy. There may be secrets in certain Government Departments, though they must be comparatively rare, but under the Clause modifications may be made in cases where it may be necessary. The secrecy argument is a very weak one because during the war all these secret places had to be cleaned and had to have charwomen. At present the grass has to be mown, and the weeds have to be kept down and paths kept in order. Who does that? Someone is brought in from outside and does it under supervision, or someone pledged to secrecy does the job. I am sure that the Minister can get over that little difficulty.

I shall not enlarge on the fact that Government Departments are very bad offenders because hon. Members must all agree on that, but the important point is that if a Government Department has a kind of sanctuary for rats in a certain area, the block scheme is impossible to operate. There are sanctuaries in deer forests in Scotland. It is surprising how quickly the deer find their way into those sanctuaries and sooner or later they reach such a number that they have to push out into other parts. If Government Departments are to be exempt, that sort of thing may happen.

12 noon.

The Minister knows that Government Departments are offenders, and he must make them play their proper part in the scheme to destroy rats. That is particularly the case because more and more Government Departments are being created every day, so that the purpose behind this Clause will gradually become more and more important. Moreover, Government Departments are already somewhat unpopular and if ordinary individuals realise that Government Departments are being treated differently from the way in which they are being treated themselves, it may well cause some sort of resentment. It might be like exempting the police from the penalty for getting drunk or like having one law for the rich and another for the poor. It must appear that justice is done and I believe that in this Clause we go a good way towards making it quite clear that justice is being done.

Government Departments must take their responsibilities. This is a democratic country, but if Government Departments are to be exempt it will become very akin to the great dictatorship countries where they are exempt from not complying with the regulations which apply to ordinary people. I am sorry that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye) and the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Tolley) are not here, but no doubt they will be in the Lobby on our side when it comes to a Division. They both spoke very strongly and forcibly in Committee on this point and, indeed, the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Stubbs) sent shudders down our spines when he told us about 600 rats invading one stack. That was just outside a Polish camp and there is no question of secrecy in connection with Polish camps. I hope those hon. Members will support us both vocally and in the Lobbies and that the Minister will take note of the fact that there is strong feeling in all parts of the House on this matter.

Mr. John Morrison (Salisbury)

I do not want to take up more than a moment in supporting this Clause, but it is one which particularly concerns the county and constituency in which I live, because in Wiltshire there are about 100,000 acres which belong to the War Office. In addition to that, mainly in my constituency, there are other areas under the control of the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Supply. In the interests of all the surrounding districts I believe this Clause should be accepted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ton-bridge (Mr. G. Williams) said, if there are small areas which are not covered by the same rules for killing vermin as those which apply to the general public, then inevitably the number of vermin increases. I hope the Minister will consider this Clause favourably.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)

May I, first of all, reply to the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams) on the subject of the Forestry Commission? It may interest him to learn that we have never had a solitary complaint from any source what- soever to the effect that the Forestry Commission have failed to co-operate in the destruction of any of the pests with which—

Mr. Turton

I think the Minister is confusing my hon. Friend's speech with what was said by his own colleague, the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye) in the Committee stage, when he said that the Forestry Commission were great offenders. Nothing has been said against the Forestry Commission by hon. Members on this side of the House.

Mr. Williams

The hon. Member will recollect that the hon. Member for Ton-bridge made special reference to the Forestry Commission in his observations.

Mr. G. Williams

I have not mentioned the Forestry Commission.

Sir T. Dugdale

I think the Minister is referring to my speech.

Mr. T. Williams

The hon. and gallant Baronet also made reference to the Forestry Commission. Perhaps he could give one example where the Forestry Commission have failed on any occasion to co-operate either with the local authority or the county executive committee in the extermination of pests. So far, no such evidence has been brought to our notice. Since a similar Clause was moved in Committee the Parliamentary Secretary has held a thorough investigation to see whether complaints have been made about the Forestry Commission and we find that they do not exist. Indeed, the Forestry Commission have themselves their own pecular problems about certain kinds of pests—rabbits, deer and so on—and I should think, in their own interests, they would be the best example in the country of clearing their own forests, if they are ever to get any trees at all. Therefore, the arguments both upstairs and in the House about the Forestry Commission have no relevance, since no one has provided a specific case.

With regard to the War Office, it may well be that, on odd occasions, pest officers have not instantaneously had the right of way which they thought they ought to have had, but perhaps the War Office would be justified in that action on some occasions—not that we have found them unco-operative at any time—should there be a danger to the pest operator in walking on to an area where there might be unexploded ammunition.

It seems to me that the case against this Clause is very simple. First of all, the ordinary tenant of Crown property is covered by the Bill as it stands, so that the new Clause can apply only to Government Departments. Surely, without being subject to the provisions of this Act, compelling a Government Department to conform to the law, the Government Department would, in fact, conform to the law. It would be rather embarrassing if Government Departments were to be made subject to orders by local authorities.

What we have done is to take pains to ascertain from all Government Departments who might be affected, aerodromes, storage departments or the War Office, what would be their attitude and we have their assurance that they are willing to enter into consultations not only with local authorities but also with county executive committees, where they are the authority, in order to ensure that the fullest possible opportunities are provided for the authority and that action is taken to ensure that the Government Department complies with the law fully and absolutely. On those grounds I cannot see any reason why we should accept this Clause.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

Before the Minister sits down, may I ask him what is the position of something which is similar to a Government Department—the national railways? Are they covered in the statement he has just made?

Mr. T. Williams

Certainly, and, of course, on top of that, should any Government Department fail in their duty under the Act any hon. Member could bring it to the notice of the House at any time.

Mr. G. Williams

It would be difficult without getting out of Order.

Mr. C. Williams

I am not clear about this matter. What is the exact position about the nationalised railways? When we had the good old-fashioned railway system they were good at looking after their property, but now, as is well-known, there is a steady depreciation in railway stations, especially the big ones; there is far less cleanliness and in all probability there is a far greater infestation of rats and mice.

Mr. T. Williams

Perhaps the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) would permit me to intervene to clarify the position. The Railway Commission is not a Government Department in the sense that one would interpret that phrase under the Clause. Therefore, they are entirely outside this Clause on the Order Paper.

Mr. C. Williams

That is all the more reason why the Government should have come here with a proper arrangement to put this Clause right so as to make sure that deficiencies in the Clause are corrected. If that is so, then even what the right hon. Gentleman said condemns his own Department for not having obtained efficiency in this matter. It really is a growing menace in the whole of the countryside at the present time that we have these great railway lines running through the country and—

Mr. Speaker

Railway lines are subject to the ordinary law and, therefore, do not come within this Clause. They are not affected by this Clause in the least.

Mr. C. Williams

They are subject to the ordinary law, and I imagine that, therefore, they could be prosecuted in the ordinary way. That being so, we are going to have a busy time in front of us, because many of us undoubtedly will be finding ourselves in trouble with them about this matter. Therefore, I hope that the Clause will be passed, and that all will be brought under the law in the normal way.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman about the Forestry Commission. He said he had never had any complaint that the Forestry Commission had not kept its land clean from rats and mice. I do not see why we should expect him to know that there have been complaints on this matter. However, in the Committee there were clear complaints about the Forestry Commission. I was in Norfolk a year or so ago, and one of the complaints there was that Forestry Commission land was a perfect sanctuary for pests of all sorts and kinds. I know it is very difficult for anyone to complain about the Forestry Commission because we find it so difficult to complain about Government Departments in these days. People do not like to complain about their very powerful neighbours of that kind, because to do so puts them in great difficulties.

Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman another question about this. This Measure will apply to Scotland. Can he really say that the Scottish Office have never yet had any complaints of any kind about vermin on Forestry Commission land in Scotland? Will he kindly tell me how I am to complain about the Forestry Commission? Suppose I go on some Forestry Commission land, as I hope to do in due course, and suppose that while I am there I see rats and mice, do I complain to the Forestry Commission first, or to the right hon. Gentleman, or—if I am in Scotland—to the Secretary of State for Scotland?

Really, when the right hon. Gentleman says there is a lack of complaints about the Forestry Commission, he makes me think that he has not made a great deal of research into the matter. I agree with him in what he said about its being obviously the duty of the Forestry Commission to keep down rats and mice in the interests of growing trees. No one could dispute that. Whether that is done is a very different matter: it is another matter whether Forestry Commission lands are harbours from which rats and mice come out on to other ground. I very much doubt if the right hon. Gentleman's information is anything like as accurate as the information of the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye), who was quoted just now.

What we are trying to do by this new Clause is to lay on Government Departments the same duties as, under the ordinary law, we lay on ordinary private individuals. It is all very well to say, "Oh, no Government Department would ever defy the rule of another Government Department." Many of us who have been in the House for some years would be only too surprised to hear of any Government Department that kept the rules of another Government Department if they did not happen to suit it. That is the sort of argument the right hon. Gentleman put forward against this Clause. If one Department has rats on its premises and another Department complains about that, the amount of time wasted in the communications between the two will be three or four times the amount of time that would be taken if a Government Department were communicating with a private individual, and forty times the amount of time two private individuals would take if one made a complaint against another.

I hope my hon. Friends on this side of the House, who, I think, have done a very useful bit of work in bringing this matter up, will go to a Division in support of the Clause, because there is little difficulty in pointing out that the right hon. Gentleman has no intention whatever of getting other Government Departments to enforce the extinction of vermin. We all knew the Government are not willing to do it. To be in the countryside and see the ever-increasing incursions of Government Departments into our countryside is heart-breaking and fills one with a sense of hopelessness. It is not surprising that we hear such speeches as that made just now by the right hon. Gentleman, when he clearly treated this as just a small matter to be pushed on one side, as though Government Departments were above the law and everything else, and their properties were regarded by rats and mice as holy places to which they must not and would not go.

12.15 p.m.

Let us consider places such as Plymouth, where there is much Government Department property, with poor people living all around it. They have no protection whatever against the incursions of rats and mice out of Government premises. That is the sort of position in which we are put today, and not only in the big towns but also in the countryside. Although I am not surprised at the attitude of the Government, yet the country as a whole will know that the Government have no intention whatever, however loudly they talk about this war on rats and mice, of doing anything to clean their own stables first.

Mr. Turton

I am very disappointed by what the Minister has said today. It is one of the difficulties of our Parliamentary procedure that even when there is unanimity on the Committee stage amongst Members on all sides we cannot at a later stage get done what we want done, and yet the only reason why, in the Committee, we did not have a Division and defeat the Government on this, was that we regarded this Bill as a nonparty Measure. We preferred rather that the Government should take this part of the Bill back for reconsideration and redrafting. Hon. Members on the other side, if there are any who have read the report of the proceedings of the Committee, will know that what I am saying is not an exaggeration.

Indeed, the strongest arguments for some statutory method of dealing with Government Departments that harbour rats and mice came from hon. Members on the Socialist side of the Committee. I think they went too far. I did not agree with the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Dye), who, now that he is under the discipline of the chief Patronage Secretary, has absented himself from our proceedings today, when he complained in Committee of the handling of the rats and mice problem by the Forestry Commission. I think the Commission is woefully bad over foxes, but that is another matter for another Friday.

The Minister's argument today is, that although he has looked at this matter there is nothing more that he can do than he has been attempting to do and failing to do in this matter ever since he took office in 1945.

Mr. T. Williams

There would not have been any rats and mice if Conservative Governments of pre-war days had done their duty.

Mr. Turton

I really do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is quite correct in that, because the rat, as he knows, is an imported animal, and great numbers of rats have come into the country quite recently during the war, through the docks, and have got inland through the military encampments. I know that in my constituency we kept rats and mice down very well before the war. This large increase in the numbers of rats and mice has come about through the Ministry of Works encampments, which included encampments for the War Office and the Air Ministry.

There has not been the same care on such Government premises in keeping down the rat population as was exercised by the country people before their careful work was spoiled by the spread of encampments and other Government pre- mises. I gave the Committee an instance of large areas of agricultural land that suffered largely because of one particular camp, which was first occupied by a military unit, then by a Russian contingent, and finally by Italian ex-prisoners of war. I am not going again into that very disastrous occurrence. When I told of it in the Committee other hon. Members gave other examples of the same sort of thing.

The methods of consultation are not sufficient at the present time, and therefore I beg the Minister of Agriculture to think again on this problem because the answer he has given us is not satisfactory, or even accurate in all respects, as regards this Bill. He has quoted in his reply the words the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry first used when he was speaking on a proposed new Clause which had this object in view and before it had had support from the Socialist Benches. He then said: There are two classes of Crown property. There is the property which is owned by the Crown, but which is in the occupation of some private individual military unit or commercial undertaking …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 5th May, 1949; c. 122.] I must stop there. I could never understand to what he was referring by "private individual military unit." I did not know we had any private armies here at present. I think that is the fallacy which lies behind the whole of the Minister of Agriculture's arguments; that a military unit, if commanded by an officer, is not part of Crown property. It is the very fact that these pieces of Crown property are occupied by military formations with their garbage dumps which causes the great trouble to the country and because of that we are moving this new Clause.

The Parliamentary Secretary went on to say that the other class of Crown property is property owned by and in the occupation of the Crown. The Minister repeated that argument and said that it was all right if the Crown owned the property and it was occupied by someone else and this Measure was in force. I would draw attention to Clause 4 under which it may well be that the occupier of that property may have notified the presence of rats and mice on the premises and the local authority would in the normal course have ordered structural repairs or other works as laid down under Clause 4. That cannot happen now because that property, although occupied by an individual undertaking, is owned by the Crown. I ask the Minister to apply his mind to that problem. How are we to secure that structural alterations take place on Crown property which is occupied by someone else when the local authority have been notified by the occupier to take the necessary steps to clear the property of rats and mice? I did not hear one argument in the speech he delivered that attempted to deal with that point.

The reason why the 1919 Act has failed in recent years has been that we have been increasing the area of land occupied by Government departments. Just as that area has increased, so there has been a lack of responsibility in the matter of keeping down vermin. I hope we shall not have to divide on this, but that the Minister will give some better assurance than he has given and will talk the matter over with his Parliamentary Secretary to see if this Clause, or something like it, can be inserted in the Bill.

Question put, and negatived.